What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), also called fetal alcohol exposure (FAE), describes a range of mild to severe problems that may affect a developing fetus if alcohol is used during pregnancy. These problems include certain facial features, such as a small face or narrow eyes. They also include slowed growth before and after birth, birth defects, and lifelong problems with learning and behavior.

The type and severity of effects from FASD depends on:

  • How much, how often, and at what stage of pregnancy alcohol is used. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. The most severe effects—called fetal alcohol syndrome—often are related to heavy alcohol use. But any amount of alcohol can harm a fetus.
  • Overall health during pregnancy. If other drugs were used during pregnancy, or if there were other health problems, an infant is at increased risk for more severe problems as they grow.
  • Family health history. Some fetuses are more likely to be harmed by alcohol exposure than others. It's not clear why. But there may be a genetic link.

What is the treatment for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)?

There is no cure for FASD. But early treatment may help reduce some problems from the condition.

An infant born with FASD may be treated for problems from low birth weight. Some newborns may have special care, such as being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Treatment for older children may include extra support in school. It may also include therapy, such as speech therapy or behavior therapy. Medicines can be used to help treat a mental health condition or behavioral problem linked to FASD. Parents can choose to take classes to learn more about how they can help their child.

How can you prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)?

You can prevent FASD by not drinking alcohol at all during pregnancy. That is what many doctors suggest. If you use alcohol and need help quitting or cutting back, talk to your doctor or counselor.

The effects that alcohol has on a fetus depends on how much, how often, and at what stage of pregnancy alcohol was used. The most severe effects often are related to heavy alcohol use. But any amount of alcohol may affect the fetus.

When is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) diagnosed?

Signs of FASD don't always appear at birth. A doctor may be able to spot severe alcohol effects (fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS) in the infant at birth. Other effects, such as behavior or learning problems, may not be noticed until the child is in school.

Sometimes the doctor can find severe problems during the pregnancy. The doctor can use a test (ultrasound) to look for signs of FAS in a fetus, such as heart defects or growth delays. What may have caused those problems may not be clear. But the findings alert the doctor to any special care a child may need after birth.

What can you expect if your newborn has fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?

  • You may be concerned that your baby is getting lots of tests. All of these tests help your doctor keep track of your baby's condition and give the best treatment possible.
  • Caring for a baby with FAS at home can take extra patience. Your baby may be very sensitive to touch, sounds, and light. Watch for things that can bother your child. If your baby is irritable, try soothing them in a darkened room. If your baby has problems feeding, give smaller amounts of food more often.
  • Your doctor will give you instructions for caring for your baby. Be sure to follow all of your doctor's instructions closely.

What can you do if you are pregnant and have had alcohol?

Try to talk openly with your doctor if you've had alcohol while you're pregnant.

While you're pregnant and when you give birth, your doctor can watch for problems related to alcohol use. And the doctor will know to do more tests, if needed, as your child grows.

It's safest not to use alcohol at all during pregnancy. If you need help to quit or cut back, you can work with your doctor or counselor to find a treatment that works for you.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS): Overview

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a set of problems that may affect a child if alcohol was used during pregnancy. Alcohol passes from the placenta to the baby's blood. Even a small amount of alcohol can affect the development of the baby's brain and spinal cord.

FAS may range from mild to severe. A newborn with FAS may have low birth weight and may grow more slowly than other babies. FAS may affect the appearance of the baby's head, face, and eyes. The baby may have problems with sucking. This keeps the baby from getting enough nutrition.

FAS may cause physical or mental challenges that can last for life. Some FAS effects, like learning or behavioral problems, might not appear until the child is older. Treatment can help a child with FAS live a healthy life.

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